Jules Romanins' DONOGOO began as a 1920 novel in the form of a film scenario, which Romains adapted into a play. One would think it would be timely in this era of rampant capitalism. After attempting suicide, a depressed artist, Lamendin, is sent by a friend to an anti-Freudian quack psychiatrist who gives him a peculiar therapy: he is to stand in front of a mosque at 5:15 p.m. and attach himself to a person who will blow his nose at exactly that hour. The nose-blowing man happens to be a geographer who is now in ill repute for writing about a Brazilian village, Donogoo, that doesn't really exist. Lamedin gets an inspiration -- he will restore the geographer's reputation and get him elected to the Society of Geographers while making a fortune for himself. In an era of rampant colonialism and expansion, Lamendin convinces banks and companies to invest in this non-existent jungle village where gold can be found. Donogoo becomes an industry even though it doesn't exist. Explorers searching for Donogoo, of course, can't find it so invent it. Lamedin comes in in good colonialist form and takes it over in the name of France. Suicidal artist becomes Governor General of Donogoo. There is no gold, by the way. The play is an absurdist farce and a satire on capitalism and colonialism. It could be very funny and even a bit timely. BUT…..
For a non-English play to work on stage, it needs a lively translation. When major London theaters decide to produce a non-English play, they commission a major playwright to write a stageworthy adaptation based on a literal translation. The goal is to create a play that doesn't sound like a translation and that works for a contemporary audience. Gus Kaikkonen's translation of DONOGOO for the Min Theatre sounds like a translation. It is plodding and seldom comes to life. Kaikkonen has thrown in some contemporary references, but hasn't given his version an overall point of view. the play also could use some judicious pruning.
DONOGOO needs a magnetic, charming Lamendin. James Riordan is charmless, monotonous and doesn't seem to have a clue as to how to modulate this long role. Riordan shouts a lot. We never see the moment of discovery -- inspiration -- when he realizes that Donogoo can be a magnificent con. Lamendin is a version of one of the most traditional comic roles, the charming con man. He isn't in this production. It is really tiresome to watch a mediocre actor work too hard in a small theatre where less would be more. One can't totally blame the actor. If 85% of a director's job is casting, Kaikkonen has to take the blame for his choice.
Riordan's is surrounded by a large company of fellow actors who have a much better sense of how to lay comedy in an intimate space. Veterans Mitch Greenberg, George Morfogen, Jay Patterson, Douglas Rees and Ross Bickell have the wisdom to bring the audience to them. They're all delightful to watch. And the younger actors Brian Thomas Vaughan, Scott Thomas and Dave Quay make the most of their scenes as the real inventors of Donogoo.
Kaikonnen's production moves swiftly against very clever projected sets (Roger Hanna and Price Johnston). This could have been a worthy production with a better translation and a good leading man. We couldn't help but think about Michael Shannon's brilliant performance in Ionesco's THE KILLERS. The Mint probable couldn't afford him, but surely they could have found a better Lamendin. Anyone else in the cast would have done a better job.
DONOGOO. Mint Theatre. June 19, 2014.